USAmerica Letter

US debates calling time on career politicians

America Letter: Limiting the time politicians can serve in Congress would require a change to constitution

One of the basic but golden rules of politics is: if possible, once elected, stay elected.

In the United States, as in Ireland, for some politics is a career. Individuals have remained on the political stage for years and years.

Joe Biden was first elected as a senator in 1973. He has been in public life as a senator, vice-president and now president for 50 years with the exception of the four years between early 2017 and early 2021 when Donald Trump was in power.

The current longest-serving senator is Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who was first elected in 1981 and has served for 42 years. But this is just trotting after Michigan politician John Dingell, a Democrat who spent 59 years in the House of Representatives – winning election an astonishing 29 times.


There are 435 seats in the US House, but given local politics as well as gerrymandering of constituencies, in the recent midterm elections in November it was estimated that only about 80 were competitive between parties.

There can be tight contests within parties for the right to run. However, incumbents tend to have the benefits of name recognition, fundraising capacity and the ability to bring government investment to their areas.

Limiting the time politicians can serve was a popular idea on the right about 30 years ago but then seemed to fade away. But there are some who still advocate for such restrictions. Such campaigners ask whether the founders of the country envisaged a political class or whether there should be “citizen politicians” who would give service to the state for a while and then, like George Washington, go back to their farms.

In 1995 the US supreme court found that individual states could not introduce qualifications for prospective members of Congress that were stricter than those set out in the constitution. This decision, in effect, invalidated provisions for term limits that some states wanted.

The introduction of restrictions on how long politicians could serve in Congress would involve changing the constitution. At present the US president can only serve two four-year terms. Senators serve six-year terms and House members two years. However, they are eligible for re-election more or less indefinitely.

There have been proposals put forward in some state legislatures for a convention of states to propose a constitutional amendment to allow for term limits.

Those of us in Congress ought to serve for a reasonable period and then return home to live under the laws we enacted

—  Ralph Norman, a House member from South Carolina

Earlier this week Republican senator Ted Cruz sponsored a resolution in the Senate proposing such an amendment to the US constitution limiting the number of terms a member of Congress may serve. The initiative, if passed by Congress and ratified by the states, would restrict members of the House to three terms, or six years, and senators to two terms, or 12 years.

Cruz said term limits were critical to fixing the problems of Washington DC. “The founding fathers envisioned a government of citizen legislators who would serve for a few years and return home, not a government run by a small group of special interests and lifelong, permanently entrenched politicians who prey upon the brokenness of Washington to govern in a manner that is totally unaccountable to the American people.”

The counter argument, of course, is that getting rid of experienced politicians could leave those who replaced them – and who were new to the world of Washington DC – more under the spell of lobbyists and special interests.

The proposal put forward by Cruz has 11 Republican cosponsors so far. The Texas senator has brought forward similar proposals before but they did not go anywhere. And on this occasion it also seems unlikely that the resolution will receive the support of the necessary two-thirds of both chambers of Congress.

However, Republicans now control the House of Representatives. One of those backing the Cruz plan is House member Ralph Norman from South Carolina, who said this week that elected office should be a “short-term privilege” and not a career choice. “Those of us in Congress ought to serve for a reasonable period and then return home to live under the laws we enacted.”

As part of the recent wheeling and dealing within the Republican Party that led to Kevin McCarthy becoming speaker of the House, Norman said he had been given a commitment to holding a vote on the floor of the chamber on introducing term limits.

The measure may not pass but we are likely to hear more about it in the weeks ahead.